History as Relationship

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.”1 Sofia Samatar’s challenge in her plenary talk at the Crossing the Line conference echoes the words of Gerda Lerner, the American Jewish historian credited as the founder of women’s studies. In Lerner’s words, even though “women have been denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world, history shows that women have always, as have men, been agents and actors in history.”2 The challenge in doing women’s history is not just accessing the stories; it is also in navigating the relationship between historian and actor. I have found Palmer Parker’s concept of “knowing” to be helpful in thinking about my relationship with those I study: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”3

My interest in the history of Brethren in Christ women emerged as I was completing my undergraduate degree forty years ago. Although my historical journey would take me to a variety of avenues of exploration in church history, mostly Canadian, much of it exploring women’s actions and agency, Crossing the Line brought me back to my Brethren in Christ roots. The panel Devin Manzullo-Thomas organized gave me the opportunity to fulfill my youthful desire to come into deeper relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson, whose diaries and unusual accomplishments for a nineteenth-century woman had long inspired me.

Over the years I have read and re-read Frances Davidson’s missionary travelogue, her journals, and Morris Sider’s biography.4 Crossing the Line opened the way for a deeper knowing, as I explored Frances’s longing for higher education, and the dramatic call that led her to leave college teaching for pioneer missionary work. Sitting with her early diaries deepened my knowing from the distant image of a brilliant, bold, courageous woman, to one who was passionately spiritual, with a deep mysticism that opened her heart to transformation; my relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson grew as I pondered her journals where she expressed her experience of God’s call.5

I am grateful to her great-nephew Earl Brechbill for saving Frances’s journals penned in little brown notebooks from extinction by protective family members.6 I am grateful to Morris Sider for taking the risk of publishing them in Brethren in Christ History & Life. Knowledge about this woman had long validated my own deep desire to study. Crossing the Line provided an opportunity to go further into relationship, to follow my own inner push to write about her, something deeper than history.  Her story is part of my story.  We need women’s stories, but it can take years of gestation as we come into relationship with the past. “Why does a historian study the dead past?” Parker Palmer asks: “To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”7 The push to come into closer relationship with this aspect of my history after years of contemplation, feels like a personal gift from Crossing the Line.


  1. “In Search of Women’s History: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/crossing-the-line/page/1/ 
  2. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207. 
  3. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. 
  4.  South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915); “The Journals of Frances Davidson,” Part 1: The Early Years (1861 – 1895), Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1985): 103-23; Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898) Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1985), 181-204; Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904) Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1986), 23-64; Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908) Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1986), 125-49; Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1986), 284-309; see also Hannah Frances Davidson Diaries Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. http://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive/D7FCD1A1-ABA4-4088-94C8-059638202176 ; E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214. 
  5. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52. 
  6. Interview with Earl and Ellen Brechbill by the author and Phyllis Marr Harrison, 18 July 2000, Mechanicsburg, PA. 
  7.  Courage to Teach, 54. 

Mennonite Heritage Sunday Then and Now

Jason B. Kauffman

This week the Mennonite Church USA Archives released a new collection of worship resources for Mennonite Heritage Sunday which falls this year on October 28. The resources were created by members of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery coalition and were released on Monday, October 8, to coincide with Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States.

The idea of marking a Mennonite Heritage Sunday dates back to the 1970s when Leonard Gross was director of the (old) Mennonite Church Historical Committee. He successfully advocated for the importance of setting aside one Sunday each year to reflect upon our shared history as Mennonites. Mennonite Heritage Sunday has been on the official church calendar since 1980 and falls on the last Sunday of October each year. The date was initially chosen to coincide with Reformation Day, which the broader Protestant church celebrates on October 31 each year to remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church.

Original Five

The original six persons who met in Hesston, KS, in March 1987 to organize United Native Ministries. L-R Clara Major (Ojibway), Henry Smiley (Navajo), Cindy Bell (Choctaw), Ray Horst, Geraldine Isaac (Choctaw), and Larry Haskie (Navajo). (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The Mennonite Church Historical Committee initiated Heritage Sunday to “remind us that our roots are in the very first church to emerge out of the Reformation.” The committee regarded Heritage Sunday as a day to “look to [our] Anabaptist heroes of faith,” to consider their stories of faithfulness, and to be “reminded of our own living faith.” 1 During the early years the historical committee produced a packet of worship materials with suggestions for congregations on how to prepare for Heritage Sunday, which included hymns, Biblical texts, suggested themes, and story illustrations. More recently, these resources have been posted online on the Mennonite Church USA website. Due to staff transition at the archives, MC USA has not developed worship resources for the broader church since 2014.

While many previous worship materials used the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement as a primary reference point and struck a more celebratory tone, in recent years those who developed the resources have begun to feature other, more recent parts of the Mennonite past. For example, the 2013 and 2014 worship materials focused on the contributions that women and youth have offered to the broader Mennonite Church, often in spite of resistance on the part of institutional leaders. They highlight the roles that conflict, change, and adaptation to change have played in our collective history as Mennonites.

This year’s worship resources take things one step further. They invite us to confess and lament the ways in which Mennonites in North America have benefited from the Doctrine of Discovery at the expense of indigenous people. While Mennonites did not directly seize land from indigenous people, they did gain access to land after their removal, thus benefiting at their expense. Mennonite-run boarding schools provided education for indigenous people but also contributed to culture loss and assimilation. While it is true that Mennonites of European descent did not directly seek to oppress indigenous people in North America, Mennonites as a group have historically enjoyed privileges (legal and otherwise) that indigenous people have not. The history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people is complex and these worship resources invite Mennonite congregations to engage in meaningful reflection on what it means to confess and lament our role in this history.

Native Amer banner1

Poster created for a conference on the history of Mennonite/Native American relationships in Clinton, Oklahoma, March 30-April 2, 2006. (Photo courtesy MC USA Archives)

The historical relationship between Mennonites and indigenous people would also benefit from further research. I know of no baseline, comprehensive study that chronicles the history of Mennonite interactions (missionary and otherwise) with indigenous communities in North America.2 There have, however, been conferences related to this theme. For example, in 2006 there was a major conference in Clinton, Oklahoma, which gathered close to 300 people “to explore the legacy of Indian/Mennonite relationships since 1880.”3 Titled, “Cheyenne, Arapaho, Mennonite: Journey from Darlington,” the conference was sponsored by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA and resulted in two special issues of Mennonite Life featuring essays from conference presenters.

Many of those who presented at the conference have continued to produce scholarship examining the relationship between Native Americans and Mennonites, including (but not limited to) Raylene Hinz-Penner, Kimberly D. Schmidt, and Marvin E. Kroeker. David Horst Lehman, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, is doing fascinating work on the agro-environmental dimensions of settler (including Mennonite) conflicts with Potawatomi communities in northern Indiana. A 2019 conference on “Mennonites and Anthropology” at the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg will offer another venue for scholars to present new work on the topic of Mennonite/indigenous relationships.

There is also new research waiting to be completed, drawing from untapped sources from the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, and likely other archives and libraries in the United States and Canada. John Thiesen, from the MLA, has started to provide digital access to many of these sources through a page on the Bethel College library website. The page includes hundreds of digitized documents from both personal manuscripts and organizational records – dating to the late nineteenth century – as well as a useful bibliography of published secondary sources on Native American/Mennonite relationships.

At the MC USA Archives the documentary record is much sparser, in part due to the more recent history of mission work with indigenous communities. Mennonite mission work with the Creek in Alabama began in 1951, work with the Navajo began in 1954, and work with Choctaw of central Mississippi began in 1958. Although there are few, if any, personal manuscript collections at the archives, the organizational records of Mennonite Board of Missions do contain correspondence and reports to document the broad contours of these histories. There are also several oral history interviews with indigenous Mennonite women in the Mennonite Women of Color Oral History collection. For more recent years, the archives houses the records of United Native Ministries, an old Mennonite organization created in the 1980s to provide social and spiritual support to Native American Mennonites.

Before arriving at the archives, I had little knowledge of the long history of Mennonite relationships with indigenous people in the United States and Canada. It is a complicated history and it looks much different to Mennonite eyes in 2018 than it likely did in 1918 or 1968. These stories, too, are part of our Anabaptist heritage, so I hope that Mennonite congregations will use the new resources during worship on October 28 (or sometime thereafter). For those of us with little prior knowledge about this history, understanding the Doctrine of Discovery and its impact on the indigenous people of North America is a good place to start. Hopefully the resources will serve as a starting point for further learning, storytelling, scholarship, and understanding.



  1. John E. Sharp, “Mennonite Heritage Sunday Rationale,” 16 February 2005. Mennonite Church Historical Committee (electronic records), I-3-3. Mennonite Church USA Archives. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  2. I’m thinking along the same line as early books by Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986) and Rafael Falcón, translated by Ronald Collins, The Hispanic Mennonite Church in North America, 1932-1982 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986). The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online includes an article for “Indians, North America,” which provides basic information about the various indigenous peoples that Mennonites have interacted with over time. 
  3. “Editor’s Note,” Mennonite Life 61:2 (June 2006). 

Mennonites in Mexico

I am a scholar of Mexican literature and culture, which means that I grew up, academically, studying novels and short stories written in Spanish by people in Mexico. My early research was informed by my understanding of the Anabaptist tradition—it was about state oppression of marginalized people in Mexican history and literature, and how literature helps us imagine creating alternative forms of community. Ultimately, that research became a book, The National Body in Mexican Literature

I have always enjoyed studying Spanish and learning about Mexican history. The stories I read and analyzed were aesthetically and politically interesting. I also had some connections with Latin America. My mom was born in Paraguay, where her parents were working on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and my dad had many relatives throughout Latin America. These Low German-speaking Mennonites migrated to Mexico—and then to Belize, Bolivia, and other countries—from Canada. Some had spent decades in Latin America and migrated back to Ontario or Alberta. He also spent years working on people’s citizenship paperwork as part of his work with the Mennonite Central Committee. These Mennonite connections with Latin America did not have much to do with Spanish—even though there are many Mennonites in Latin America who speak Spanish and indigenous languages.

These areas of research combined in the book Liminal Sovereignty: Mennonites and Mormons in Mexican Culture. It compares Mennonites to Mormons, because Mennonites are also confused with Mormons in the media, archival documents, and popular culture. In Mexico, Mennonites are usually conflated with the most conservative Old Colony people who use horse and buggy as their form of transportation. (This is as accurate as saying most Mennonites in the US are Amish). Mennonites have been most famously portrayed on screen in Carlos Reygadas’ film Silent Light. They have also appeared on Mexican television, in Los héroes del norte. They appear in archival photographs and in documents that relate to land claims and resulting conflict.

One of the most compelling examples of Mennonite immigration to Mexico are the 4,000 registration cards in the Mexican archives. Between 1926 and 1951, all foreigners in Mexico were to register themselves with the federal government. These documents are unlike stories of church leaders, or generalized narratives of immigration, because they portray the lives of ordinary people, and allow us to imagine what their lives might have been like. The following is adapted from my research examining the registration cards used by Mexico during this period.

The requirement for registration came out of the Mexican government’s desire to solidify control over Mexican territory. It had only settled on a new constitution in 1917, and, through the influence of José Vasconcelos, and other thinkers, began propagating a doctrine of racial mixture or mestizaje. The immigrants would have to become part of this new vision of Mexico.

Migración Canadienses 2-49-1

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s Registration Card

Katharina Bueckert Epp’s card gives us remarkable insight into this woman’s life, and to what the Mexican government considered to be important. The card gives information about her physical appearance and her entry into Mexico. We see that she registered herself as a foreigner living in Mexico in 1933, and that she was thirty years old. She had been one of the early arrivals of Mennonites in Mexico, having crossed the border from the US in 1922. She was single and her occupation was her home, almost certainly her parental home; further, that her first language was German and that she spoke no other language. Her nationality was Canadian and her religion was Mennonite. She was said to live in Campo 5, which the Mennonites called Grünthal. This was in the Manitoba colony, near the city of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua. The card, as we can see, also includes a photograph. In the photograph, her dress is dark and appears not to have a collar, which is in keeping with what was expected of Old Colony women. Her hair, with a parting in the middle, is combed back and tied in a bun. The way she has written her name, similar to the handwritten Gothic German script that she learned in her school, is not confident. Her facial expression suggests that she was uninterested in the then-lengthy photography process. We don’t know about her hopes or dreams or how she felt about Mexico. We do see that she was trying to present her life in accordance with the values of her church, and that the Mexican government was trying to find a way to include her in its society.

 

 

Fear and the Black Manifesto

I have been thinking a lot about fear as of late. Two events prompt me.

The first is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Black Manifesto. The second, a statement released in early September 2018 by a group of evangelicals entitled a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.” The two documents—and the responses to them—suggest to me that white evangelicals, and the Mennonites sometimes counted among their number, have a legacy of fear to confront.

intelligencer-journal-1969-05-26.jpeg

*  *  *  *  *

The story of Mennonite engagement with the Black Manifesto is an unexpected one. It begins in New York City.

On May 4, 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staffer James Forman took over the service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. From the front of the sanctuary, he read the Black Manifesto, a document demanding $500 million in reparations for the church’s participation in slavery and ongoing racism. Forman’s act sent shock waves through the Christian community not so much due to the amount of the request but because it came with the threat of ecclesial takeovers. Newspaper reporters from across the country described his original intervention and the subsequent occupancies that followed. In Mennonite-intensive Lancaster County, the Intelligencer Journal ran more than twenty articles about the Black Manifesto in the space of just over two months.

Those articles told the story of Black Manifesto activists disrupting churches and religious organizations. In some cases, congregational leaders arranged for police to be present if disruptions took place.1 Riverside Church obtained a restraining order to keep Forman from hijacking their services a second time.2 In Philadelphia, police arrested a group of Black Manifesto activists who had occupied a Methodist congregation.3 On three separate occasions, Forman and his followers took over denominational headquarters in major cities.4 One group of activists threatened to spit into the communion cup during Catholic mass.5 Reporting on these events focused far more on the takeover actions than on the full list of demands included in the Manifesto.

As those reports continued to proliferate in the popular press, Mennonite church officials started to weigh in. Given that former Mennonite pastor and church agency worker Vincent Harding appeared on a roster of the Manifesto’s steering committee, church leaders paid close attention from the beginning. Two weeks after Forman’s appearance at Riverside, Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section executive secretary Walton Hackman sent a cover memo and copy of the Manifesto to every member of his executive committee and each department head in the entire organization informing them of Harding’s involvement.6 One week later, General Conference voluntary service workers in nine cities received a copy of the Manifesto.7 By June, an appeal to fund summer programming at urban Mennonite churches made a brief reference to the Manifesto in the pages of the General Conference magazine The Mennonite.8 That same month, Orlando Kaufman, the director of the southern voluntary service unit known as Camp Landon, floated the idea of an act of repentance on the part of white Christians but did not feel that most Mennonites would be ready for such a response.9

Never before had so many white Mennonites responded so quickly to a race-based challenge to the church. The passage of the 1954 Brown decision ending segregation in the U.S. had prompted a flurry of articles in the Mennonite press and precipitated the 1955 Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 had likewise resulted in a similar rush of public articles, but in neither of these cases was the subsequent response as sustained, vociferous, or widespread as the response to the Black Manifesto. Mennonites paid attention to the prospect of worship disruption.

Leaders of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee took the response one step further. After meeting on July 10, they decided to send a letter to every pastor in their conference—some three hundred ministers—instructing them what to do should a Black Manifesto emissary show up at the door of their meeting house. A copy of the Manifesto came with every letter. In their missive, the Peace Committee members expressed considerable sympathy for the Manifesto’s authors and acknowledged their own failings, noting, “we too have so often failed to care and be concerned about the needs of those who are suffering right in our own communities.”10 While stopping short of a direct call for financial reparations, the committee members did enjoin the pastors to “demonstrate Christian love and peace,” accept “Black people as equals,” make “financial resources available where it is needed, and “provide employment and housing opportunities.”11

The specific instructions, however, reveal the committee members’ underlying concern and, at root, a measure of fear. Enjoining the pastors to embody “the way of love” to any Black Manifesto emissary, the letter’s authors also instructed the ministers to allow for their services to be disrupted and to “listen to the reading of the Black Manifesto in a spirit of Christian love.”12 Such instructions appear consistent with the doctrine and expressed commitments of the Mennonite community at the time.

What follows next seems somewhat less consistent.

The third point of instruction states: We must avoid any defensive, unchristian spirit or actions such as attempting to restrain those who would enter our services or buildings or the calling of the police. This will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.

I remember the first time that I read this statement. It struck me as significant. Paul Landis and Noah Good, both highly influential members of the Lancaster Conference community, imagined that at least some of the pacifist, quietist, separatist, ordained members of their flock would get physical with black visitors to their congregation. They were afraid that they might call the authorities.

Good and Landis clearly were far more concerned about their pastors acting in ways they deemed inappropriate than with what might happen to those African-American activists if things got violent or the police showed up. In 1969, the police already had a long record of responding with violence to members of the black community. The likelihood of violence increased dramatically in settings where white lives and propriety were somehow threatened or disrupted. Yet, that threat to black life was not the primary concern emphasized in the letter.

That Good and Landis would be concerned about conflict should come as no surprise. White people’s avoidance of conflict in general and racial strife in particular during the 1960s has been well established.13 What was true for the white populace as a whole was doubly true for white Mennonites.14

Yet the chance that a Black Manifesto emissary would show up at a Lancaster Conference church was extremely low. I have yet to find a reference to a rural or suburban congregation being taken over by Forman or one of his emissaries. Some may have occurred, but they certainly did not show up in reports from the era. Congregations in Ephrata, Elizabethtown, Millport, or Masonville simply were not on the radar for those focused on the payment of half-a-billion dollars in reparations.

So why send the letter at all?

Perhaps Good and Landis wanted to educate their pastors about an issue that they deemed important. They knew that their members would have no ready access to a copy of the Manifesto, and wanted them to be informed.

Perhaps the Conference leaders desired to forestall the kind of ruckus that had taken place when church leaders of other denominations had shut the door on Forman and his lieutenants. Things had gone awry elsewhere.15 It is reasonable that they would not want to display public conflict at a time when Conference leaders were considering joining the larger Mennonite church denomination.16

Or perhaps Good and Landis had every reason to fear a racist response. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, Landis recalled his “concern that people were buying the right-wing reaction to black power” and his desire to foster “more of a Christian stand.”17 But overall, his memory of the events surrounding the Black Manifesto in Lancaster Conference was vague.

Memories can fail us.

Yet I am less interested in faulty recollections than I am in reactive fears.

Because those same kinds of fears are still with us.

In early September 2018, a group of evangelical pastors—all of them men—released a Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Others have analyzed the racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism amply evident in the declaration.18 My interest is in the fear that seems to be underlying the authors’ intent.

It looks a lot like the fear evident back in 1969.

The parallels between the two periods, nearly fifty years apart, are striking. In both 1969 and 2018, the African-American community and their allies have organized powerful challenges to white supremacy. As in 1969, much of that criticism has been directed at the church. Womanist and mujerista theologians, anti-racism educators—many of them faith-based, and a burgeoning group of historians, sociologists, and critical race theorists have challenged the patriarchy, sexism, and racism present within the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.19

No wonder that a group dominated by white men released a statement essentially saying that they did not have to pay attention to, consider, evaluate, or reflect upon their receipt of white privilege, participation in male dominance, or class dynamics. Those supported by systems of oppression have consistently been the last ones to agree to discuss that reality and have offered the most strident objections to changing the status quo. Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur and the other original signatories have much to gain by deflecting discussion about the systems that serve them. They are in particular, as noted in multiple responses, deeply reluctant to talk about racism.20

Beneath that resistance is a deep fear of exposure.

I don’t know the men who wrote the 2018 social justice gospel statement. I haven’t interviewed the pastors who received the 1969 Black Manifesto letter. But I recognize the signs: defensiveness, anger, striking out, attempting to forestall any discussion that might lead to a loss of power, a loss of face. Later in 1969, Mennonite pastor John Powell challenged the church to establish a “compassion fund,” a sort of Mennonite version of the Black Manifesto to be funded by above-budget giving at the rate of six dollars per member. Although some funds did come in to support the Minority Ministries Council’s ministries in African-American and Latinx communities, they never received even half of their $500,000 goal. In their attempts to raise the Compassion Fund monies, Powell and his colleagues encountered similar defensiveness. Powell wrote that, among many statements he had heard, white Mennonites had responded, “The Mission Board is collecting money to give to the niggers.”21

In her masterful 2013 study of white southern evangelicals and the challenges they faced to integrate their congregations, Carolyn Renée Dupont discusses at length the fear of the unknown, interracial contact, and loss of control that she found in white congregations during the civil rights movement.22 Under the guise of theological fidelity, white segregationists rejected the presence of the black body in their worship space. Their fear was evident, palpable, concrete.

*  *  *  *  *

A white pastor recently told me that she recognizes her reticence to speak up regularly about racial issues because she is afraid. Members of her congregation had invited church leadership to release a statement publicly expressing their opposition to white supremacy in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville in August 2017. Although they did organize a mid-week service of mourning and repentance, members of the church’s leadership team did not allow the statement to move forward because they were afraid that it would offend wealthy, white men in the congregation.

Although twelve months later the congregation had still not released a statement despite their location in a state with several active hate groups, she told me that she is trying to confront her fear. I respect her for it.

*  *  *  *  *

The history of Mennonites’ response to the Black Manifesto, this curious moment of warning pacifist pastors neither to pummel visitors to their congregation nor call the police to do it for them, as well as a statement issued to forestall discussion about racism and other forms of oppression, and privileging call for a similar sort of courage as that shown by the pastor who spoke to me, one that—at the very least—casts out fear. Or at least acknowledges how fear very often keeps us quiet at the very moment when we need to be speaking with our fullest voice.

 

 

 

Endnotes


  1. “Forman Lauds Pastor after Rights Sermon,” Intelligencer Journal, May 12, 1969. 
  2. “Forman Asks $200 Million from Catholics,” Intelligencer Journal, May 10, 1969. 
  3. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church,” Intelligencer Journal, July 11, 1969. 
  4. “Offices of Church Occupied,” Intelligencer Journal, June 6, 1969. 
  5. “Protesters Arrested in Churches,” Intelligencer Journal, June 16, 1969. 
  6. Walton Hackman, “Manifesto to White Christian Churches and Jewish Synogogues [Sic],” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1969). 
  7. Fred Unruh, May 26, 1969. 
  8. “Special Funds for Summer City Needs,” The Mennonite, June 10, 1969. 
  9. Orlo Kaufman, June 19, 1969. 
  10. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis, Letter, July 1969. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,” Global Mennonite Peacebuilding: Exploring Theology, Culture, and Practice, 35, no. 3 (2017). 
  15. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church.” 
  16. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lancaster_Mennonite_Conference 
  17.  Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill.2005). 
  18. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/09/on-john-macarthurs-racist-statement-on-social-justice/ 
  19. See, for example, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson, Melinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014); Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietistic Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 
  20. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html 
  21. John Powell, “The Compassion Fund Is,” Gospel Herald, March 24, 1970, 271. 
  22. Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013). 

Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

Image 1

“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

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Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

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Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

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Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India. 

The (Radical) Reformer’s Wife: Katharina Purst Hutter

In the study of women and the Protestant Reformation, the reformers’ wives loom large. For those magisterial reformers who had begun their careers as Roman Catholic priests or monks, the choice to marry was a deliberate rejection of Catholic dogma, and the women who married former priests and monks likewise made a choice that publicly confirmed their break with Rome. Of the women profiled in the Germany section of Roland Bainton’s 1971 Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, fully half were reformers’ wives, and many of these women, particularly Katharina von Bora and Katharina Schütz Zell, have also been the subject of full-length biographical treatments.1

In early Anabaptism, pastors’ wives were less prominent. While Anabaptists likewise rejected clerical celibacy and some of the most prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptists—among them Michael Sattler and Menno Simons—were former monks and priests, the pressures of persecution often relegated marriage and family life to secondary theological concerns. Of the women whose stories were included in the 1996 volume Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, only a few were married to Anabaptist leaders (most notably Katharina Purst Hutter, Anna Scharnschlager, and Divara of Haarlem), and many were not married to Anabaptists at all.

The story of Katharina Purst Hutter (the wife of Jacob Hutter, founder of the communitarian Hutterite Anabaptists), however, offers an interesting comparison with that of more prominent magisterial reformers’ wives such as Katharina von Bora or Katharina Schütz Zell. Like her fellow Katharinas, she developed a strong faith of her own, even as the man who became her husband was instrumental in her conversion story. As Katharina Schütz had first been stirred by the preaching of Mathis Zell and Katharina von Bora by the writings of Martin Luther, so Katharina Purst first learned of the Anabaptist faith while working in South Tyrol in the household of Paul and Justina Gall, who hosted Jakob Hutter and other Anabaptist leaders.2 Katharina made a confession of faith and Hutter baptized her.3

Persecution, however, was a far more present reality for Katharina Purst Hutter than for her magisterial counterparts. While the Luthers and the Zells undoubtedly faced opposition, they also enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Wise and the Strasbourg city council respectively. Jakob and Katharina’s situation was not so secure. In 1533, authorities in the Tyrol arrested the Galls and all the members of their household, including Katharina. The Galls and Katharina recanted in exchange for release, only to flee to Moravia in hopes of finding a place to practice their faith more freely. Paul was captured and executed, but Justina and Katharina arrived safely in Moravia where they joined Hutter and his followers.4

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A plaque at the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorating the execution of Jakob Hutter. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter.jpg)

Katharina married Jakob Hutter two years later, in the spring of 1535, and the couple soon left Moravia and returned to the Tyrol, where they traveled from town to town visiting Anabaptists and making converts. Jakob, however, was too notorious to evade the authorities indefinitely and, in late November of 1535, he and Katharina were arrested in Klausen, at the house of a family named Stainer.5 After months of torture and interrogation, Jakob was burned at the stake in February 1536, but the authorities elected to keep Katharina alive despite the fact that she had not kept the terms of her previous release and had returned to Anabaptism after her recantation. The authorities sent for priests to convince her to return to the Catholic faith, but this time she refused to make even a pretense of recantation.6 In a statement made shortly after her arrest, Katharina explicitly rejected the mass, the Eucharist, the church building, and infant baptism as useless, abominations before God, and from the devil.7 Katharina escaped from prison in 1536 and evaded the authorities for two years, but, in 1538, she was arrested in the village of Schöneck and executed.8 Unlike her husband, no memorial plaque marks the site of her execution, but Katharina, like so many other sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, proved that she took her faith seriously enough to risk everything for it, without thought of recognition from anyone but God Himself.


  1. See, inter alia, Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-Century Reformer (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Ingelore Winter, Katharina von Bora: Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990). On pastors’ wives in the Reformation more generally see Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 
  2. Elfriede Lichdi, “Katharina Purst Hutter of Sterzing,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 179. 
  3. Katharina Hutter, “Testimony of Katharina Hutter, Given before December 3, 1535, at Klausen (1535)” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, edited by C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 194; Grete Mecenseffy (Ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Österreich III Teil (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1983), 300. 
  4.   Lichdi, 179. 
  5.   Mecenseffy, 302. 
  6.   Mecenseffy, 323. 
  7.   Hutter, 195; Mecenseffy, 301. 
  8.   Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 256. 

Writing History in the First-Person

Nearly a decade ago, in one of Steve Nolt’s classes at Goshen College, I read Hasia Diner’s essay “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.”1 In just a few pages, Diner succinctly sums up the historian’s complicated relationship with the concept of objectivity and then makes a coherent argument for the relative strengths and weaknesses of approaching a historical project as, first, an insider, and, then, as an outsider.

The piece might be a graduate student’s first-semester essay on the question of objectivity and bias, except for one thing: Diner uses the first-person voice throughout. She illustrates her points with her experiences writing about Jewish history, a subject to which she is an insider, and Irish history, which she has written about an outsider.

It is an instructive essay for the history student, in that it renders the challenge of a scholar’s position to their subject not only in a digestible fashion but in a detailed, compelling, and memorable one. Diner’s name and the title of her essay had long faded from my memory, yet the effect of her words remained and I periodically remembered the general outlines of the piece.

I thought of the essay in the last few weeks and went looking for it. Due to the sadly limited quantity of essay collections about and by Mennonite women with a historical lens (and the relative rarity of overlap between Jewish and Mennonite scholarship), I was able to find it. Diner’s essay came to mind because I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the first-person in preparation for a course I’m teaching: “First Person America.

This class, a general education requirement listed under American Studies in the Temple University course catalog, has been taught in a variety of ways. Typically it involves readings ranging from diaries and recollections of American colonists to late twentieth-century coming-of-age stories. I decided to think about the first-person more broadly and I am assigning texts ranging from visual art to music videos to podcasts. Ultimately I see the course as a primer on critical thinking, historical consciousness, and identity.

In my class, my students and I are exploring the lived experiences of people and how they claim identities based on their place in the world, or in spite of it. We are finding common ground with people whose lives are very different from ours. Perhaps more importantly, we’re trying to understand the limits of our own experiences, the places where our fellow humans face challenges and find motivations that we don’t know. We are looking for the structures which are often invisible to us and oppressive to others, but also learning how responses to those structures vary from person to person. I hope to give my students a window into other people’s realities and a skill set that will help them examine their own existence.

I am choosing to assign a variety of media rather than “breaking”2 historical monographs in part because it will allow us to fit in more people’s views and in part because while first-person writing does find its way into historical monographs, it is typically resigned to the introduction and (occasionally) the conclusion, like a frame narrative. The transition from the introduction, in which the author is present, to the main text, where they are not, is a bit like Sean Connery’s first scene in The Hunt for Red October, where he and his interlocutor switch from Russian to English in the midst of a Bible passage and the audience spends the rest of the movie suspending their disbelief on that particular point. Readers of a history book know that the author’s voice is in there somewhere but it is discreetly hiding. While not every history needs to be a memoir, an author has already inserted themselves into the story by conducting research. Why not acknowledge it?

The historical monograph, as we know it today, came from an era when history was a young profession and its practitioners believed they were working toward a common, universal, truth. They might have understood the folly of this endeavor sooner had they not had so much in common with each other: they were predominantly white men educated in the finest schools in the nation. The identity of any given historical writer could, for decades, be assumed to be something of a cookie-cutter academic. These historians were divided by politics, perhaps, but sought to build their arguments with the illusion of dispassionate facts.

The occlusion of the authorial voice is not only a pitfall of the academy. Public history spaces such as museums have long bolstered their authority in the eyes of visitors by adopting a third-person omniscient perspective to signage and interpretation. The artifacts or images are presented as though they are part of some organic collection, discovered en masse by the visitors, rather than a curated set of available artifacts.

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In historical work as in art, sometimes it is useful to see the artist’s hand. Painting by Dennis Maust.

Our scholarship is much better when we acknowledge our own position in society, our own foibles and petty preferences, and our own deepest-held beliefs, not only in the introduction but throughout our arguments. In museum contexts, labels should come with an author photo and curators should give regular talks about why and how they do their work. I advocate these practices not simply to make history consumers better informed, but in the hopes that historians continue rigorous self-exploration and understand something of the field they work in.

For those of us working from personal histories in the Anabaptist tradition, Diner’s arguments about the relative merits of the insider/outsider dichotomy should linger in our minds. Whether we are tackling subjects of church history or the broader world, we need to acknowledge the tradition from which we come. When I claim Anabaptist roots, I must wrestle with the tendency toward exceptionalism that I absorbed throughout my childhood and adolescence, from my church, my teachers, and my peers. I find this more difficult to reckon with than the history of racial inequality in the denomination as well as the ongoing denial of queer humanity. The more deeply-embedded the assumption, the harder it is to confront in one’s work.

In class tomorrow, I will lead my class in analyzing texts and discussing our own identities. I hope our discussions equip them to recognize their role as historical actors and the forces that have shaped their view of the world. We will talk about ourselves and learn about ourselves, and that is a good thing.


  1. “Insights and Blind Spots: Writing History from Inside and Outside.” in Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History,  ed. Kimberly D. Schmidt, Diane Zimmerman Umble, and Steven D. Reschly (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002): 21-38. 
  2. If you have not heard the term “book breaking,” here is a good summary of the practice: Douglas Hunter, “Book Breaking and Book Mending,” Slate, 15 July 2018: https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/07/academic-publishing-and-book-breaking-why-scholars-write-books-that-arent-meant-to-be-read.html